17 March 2013

Liberia: Dishonest Educators - the State of Education Derided - Ellen Seeks Complete Overhaul

Photo: The New Dawn
Some graduates of the University of Liberia.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf minced no words in, once again, deriding the mess that characterizes the country's educational system, blaming it largely on corruption and other forms of insensitivity and dishonesty perpetuated by those in authority.

Due to the apparent weightiness of the problem which is resultantly affecting the output of students at all levels of the educational sphere and in order for the country to have a place in the 21st century crusade for educational advancement, the president said there was a huge need for complete overhaul of the system.

President Sirleaf made the assertion when she addressed the nation on Friday, March 15, on the topic: "Fixing Liberia's Education System."

But while observers expressed support with the president on the position taken thus far, they wondered as to how the overhaul should be done, what form it should take and who should take the lead, all genuine steps her statement did not address.

The president took what might be seen as remedial action when she affected serious changes at the education ministry, removing three key officials from their posts.

Education Ministry is the arm of government that drives the country's educational system, ensuring that it works to meet all acceptable standards.

Madam Sirleaf, in her seeming show of confession, recognized that the quality of education has declined and is far below acceptable standards, and even repeated earlier statement three weeks ago "that our education system is a mess and in need of complete overhaul,"

She used her address to point out efforts being made by her government to ameliorate the system as well as activities in her view are giving rise to the dysfunctions in the educational system, outlining some actions taken during her first term, including building and rehabilitating schools.

"We made primary education free and compulsory, and followed that with free compulsory basic education. We increased the level of support to state-owned institutions of higher education and provided subsidies to private ones. We expanded vocational and technical training for those not able to pursue a full academic program," an Executive Mansion statement quoted her as saying.

"Rural Teachers Training Institutes (RTTIs) were also reactivated, while the wages of teachers were increased from US$30 to a minimum of US$200 a month - still not enough, the President said, but a start. The result of these efforts has been the increase in number of students enrolled nationwide from 1 million to 1.5 million. "For every 10 boys in school, there are 9 girls; still not good enough, but a big improvement since 2005, when there were only 7 girls in school for every 10 boys."

But on the contrary the actualization of these goals seems to be having lees impact on the overall effectiveness of the system.

Despite these accomplishments, the president lamented that the quality of education was still far too low, adding "For every 100 children who enroll in primary school, only 60 will complete grade 6; only 20 out of the 100 will sit the WAEC exams at the end of grade 12, and only 15 will pass."

"Even for those who complete school, not everyone is learning what they should. An investigation showed that one-third of third graders could not read a simple sentence. Overall, only half of those finishing primary school are functionally literate." With figures like these, said the Liberian leader, it's no wonder that many parents prefer to sacrifice and pay for private schooling rather than send their children to the public schools where tuition is free.

In 2011, the Liberian government enacted an Education Reform Act which takes decisions out of the hands of the Education Ministry in Monrovia and puts them in the hands of County School Boards, who are closer to the parents and the teachers.

More besides, the government took other attentive actions such as distributing "grants' to all 15 counties, with the aim of reinforcing the Decentralization Roadmap by empowering County School Boards to manage school material requisitions and the overall distribution of resources.

There is also attempt on the parts of authorities to clean up the payrolls which are said to be inundated with ghost names because "many of those who collect the salary and civil service benefits of teachers are not, in fact, in the classroom." All of these efforts are still hitting rocks, as "misfeasance or dishonest educators" continue to plague the system.

"The corruption and theft extends from teachers to officials at the Ministry of Education and the counties" the Liberian leader said.

"They are diverting for their personal use the resources intended for school buildings, furniture, textbooks and science equipment. They are stealing from the very children they were hired to help educate. In the end, they are stealing from all of us."

But the president said it was high time that government joined hands with the Liberian people join in finding lasting solutions together.

She accordingly advanced some suggestions as a way forward.

"First, we must create more room for experimentation, new ideas and learning. We want to attract the best people into the teaching profession, and tie their incentives to the success of their students. We will experiment with new funding mechanisms that help schools perform better.

President Sirleaf also wants a room "in our budgets for things other than buildings and salaries. Providing children with free school meals, deworming drugs and clean sanitation facilities have been shown to be very beneficial in getting children into school and keeping them there."

"Third, we need parents to take a more active role in their children's education. Many of you are already paying for fees, uniforms and textbooks. But you can do more. You can join a Parent-Teachers Association, help organize activities out of school, or help raise funds for school facilities.

She said "we need communities to help tackle the corruption and theft that is in their midst. If a teacher or school official demands bribes, commits sexual offences or fails to perform their duties, they should be reported to the police, and if necessary legal action be taken."

She called on Liberians not to forget that many Liberians continue their learning as adults, noting "We must continue to support education programs for our market women, vocational training for adults, and the National Reading Campaign."

At the same time, President Sirleaf said the education of young people is what will determine our future as a nation.

It is time, she said, for all Liberians to join hands with the government and work together to resolve the issues. "Parents, students, teachers and administrators, I am appealing to you: let us work together for a better education system and a better future for all of us," she said, stressing, "I call upon the reorganized Ministry of Education to now take up the challenge in helping to improve the quality of education."

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